Woodstock’s Dean Shambach passes on

With the death of Dean Schambach October 25 Woodstock lost its Cyrano de Bergerac, its Don Quixote — a man of talents and ambitions so vast their full achievement became ‘The Impossible Dream.’ Yet our 84-year-old Schambach accomplished so much so charismatically he must remain the hero of whatever Woodstocker continues to spin the roulette wheel of art, or builds a magnificent set of oak stairs, or (as Dean would) pet drunken bees slurping on apples beneath a late autumn’s tree. For dreamer of an impossible dream though he may have been, Dean was that one man in our midst so passionately alive he made the rest of us appear mere sleepwalkers.

First and foremost Dean was a consummate actor so it was only natural his love of theater’s literature also found him to be an extraordinary declaimer of epic poetry — known by heart. Elsewhere this loyalist of friends, passionate lover, functional lunatic, storyteller extraordinaire, master builder, connoisseur of the strongest marijuana and madcap adventurer remained the proudest, most doting of fathers. But before any of that could unfold Dean became a champion ski-jumper, claiming to have taken his first death defying flight on the same day he learned to ski. That first jump resulted in a terrible fall — one which would’ve scared off any other ill-prepared novice. But no fall from any height ever scared off Dean.

Dean Cooper Shambach landed here on December 29, 1932, the oldest of two children born to Frederick C. Schambach and Eva Rebecca Young. Eva wrote poetry and painted; Fred was a notably handsome and charismatic man loved by society people and common folk, alike. He began nevertheless by scratching out a living selling chances to win a radio or a set of knives to office workers in the five boroughs. This innocently illegal numbers racquet prospered, but Fred was always on the road and his marriage suffered. When Dean was twelve and his sister Sandy eight, their parents finally called it quits and Fred resorted to placing them in private schools.

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Dean attended The New Hampton Preparatory Academy where he began ski jumping and to appear in school plays. Stage struck, he next enrolled in The American Academy Of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan and after graduating in ‘56 promptly became leading man for the Straight Wharf Theater. Back in New York he appeared in what ultimately would be dozens of Shakespearean roles with a part in Measure For Measure, directed by a fresh talent named Joe Papp; various roles Off-Broadway and in regional theater followed. For a cherished moment Dean lived in a hotel room on Times Square with his father, who supported his son’s ambition (while furtively wishing Dean had become a dentist.)

An actor without means finds a trade to make ends meet ‘til the big break comes. Among a half dozen other jobs, Dean became a carpenter while auditioning for that grand destiny which never arrived. He lived on and off with different friends for years on end. One night a gangster’s girl took him home and shortly before dawn Dean convinced the man holding a gun to his head to put it down. Not long after he was in love with a Chilean firecracker named Juanita who managed a popular Village café, where Dean was one day working on a stubborn repair. Juanita fired off: “If you were a r-r-real carpenter you’d have fixed that fucking thing by now.” Dean shot back, “And if you were a lady you wouldn’t talk to me like that!” It so happened that Tim Hardin, seated in the corner, overheard the conversation and — we imagine — scratched down his immortal lines: “If I were Carpenter and you were a lady…”

Ian Kimmet recalls hearing that Dean built for all the folkies in the Village where Schambach’s unlocked car once cost Bob Dylan his guitar, and where Dean first met Albert Grossman. Dean’s cabinetry in Albert’s Sullivan Street office prompted the offer of further work upstate in Woodstock, where Grossman had recently purchased the old Striebel place in Bearsville. After fulfilling certain duties for the ever-fonder Albert, Dean returned sporadically to New York, but never again ever left Woodstock long. The town itself became his truest love.

Albert’s approval placed Schambach in competition with David Boyle who predated Dean as an actor/builder patronized by Grossman. According to Boyle’s 16 year companion, Joy Pollard (nee Fisher), Dean and David each became the other’s best friend and worst enemy. To our knowledge they only appeared on stage together once with David playing boyfriend to playwright/star Marcia Haufrecht (an earlier “real life” role Boyle reprised on stage); Joy played Marcia’s mother, Dean, her father.

The day before Dress Rehearsal Dean roared the wrong way up the Village Green’s oval, screeched his vintage pick-up truck to a halt and — throwing wide the driver door — blocked Joy’s path while foaming with rage about Boyle. Joy said “take it up with David.” Dean went ballistic and Joy slapped him with a straight arm and all her strength across the face. The next evening while applying makeup in the wide dressing room mirror, Joy watched Dean enter, calmly approach and place his hand on her shoulder to say merely “That was a good hit.”

Dean’s scrapbook doesn’t include dates so it’s impossible to know just when he dominated the stage of the Woodstock Playhouse — though it’s safe to say that was a foregone conclusion. Elsewhere, he first met playwright Larry Weinberg on a tight turn one snowy night on Plochmann Lane when each avoided the other’s vehicle by resorting to the ditch. They made up hard feelings ‘round the court date with Dean reading Weinberg’s plays aloud at a weekly gathering. Larry suggested Schambach audition for what proved to be Weinberg’s best if strangest play, scenes from which left Lee Strasberg Studio’s audience in shock.

That play was The Jew Who Defended Hitler and it would supply Schambach the role of his life. With that German blood boiling in his own veins, of course Dean aced the audition for the Furher, himself.

Recalls Weinberg: “Dean was a method actor on the level of Brando. He was a wonderful actor — and he was fucked up. I wrote a play about the birth of Fascism inside a single human being. Adolf Hitler couldn’t accept Germany’s defeat in World War One — he identified completely with the Fatherland — the Motherland — with Deutschland Uber Alles — and Dean, at least for the period he played the role, completely identified himself as Adolf Hitler.

“He was at my apartment on Minetta Lane in full costume, raving about what the Jews had done. Having whipped himself into a rage impossible to contain he charged out, flew down the stairs and started marching up Sixth Avenue shouting obscenities in character. I ran after him dragging Dean back to the apartment to — well…to save his life.”

In a letter of tribute for a coffee drinking friend Schambach met many early Monday mornings, (who he eventually learned was none other than the drama critic Clive Barnes), Dean describes a post-performance night at the Manhattan Theater Club [where “The Jew Who Defended Hitler” premiered in ‘75]: “..there I was, sitting before a mirror looking at myself as Hitler, in uniform with a mustache and hair across my brow, when the management said ‘Dean, we’d like you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Klugman…they were in the camps!’ Like crashing thunder and lightning, realizations rumbled through my very soul and turning my head to make eye contact with these people was slow, painful, tragic. Mr. Klugman stood, head down, eyes staring blankly, the saddest posture possible and Mrs. Klugman approached me reaching out to touch me, saying “Oh my God! Oh, my God! I know you’re just an actor but oh, my God!” Looking into these eyes caused me to weep inconsolably. The Klugmans came close to me, comforting me with a tender solace. But I had a knot of wire in my stomach and it took a while to get a grip…The man I was telling this story to, shed tears of empathy and held my hand as we both wept onto the copper countertop at Bread Alone.”

Sometime in the later-seventies David Boyle with Joy Pollard at his side drove to Bear Mountain to watch Dean — already well into his 40s — defy time itself, by competing in “A Class” against athletes half his age. Schambach had already known his share of triumphs and defeats at Bear Mountain, both in besting champions and taking horrendous falls. Joy remembers Dean speaking at length about the challenges he faced that day. “He needed to not only make his best jump, but make it there — on that course he knew so well. Jump too far, and he’d break a leg on the flats. Jump too short? Well, that was never an option for Dean.”

The “old man” was Underdog that day, but — actor through and through — Dean used the drama to his advantage. Schambach’s nose literally touched his skis mid-flight, as jump after jump he showed text-book form and so, even against formidable competition Dean pulled ahead on scores. The fifth and final jump would be the clincher — if he fell he was finished. If he pushed too hard and flew too far he was worse than finished. If he held form he’d win. Dean made the perfect final jump, and the crowd — including his beloved enemy, DB — went berserk.

Schambach had recently completed building The School of The New Moon in Riverby (deemed by Mark Peritz “the most beautiful structure in modern Woodstock.”) Still Dean was ravenous for that elusive breakthrough on stage — even if what he’d done in hopes to “Finally make it!” boggles the mind.

At 26, he stood at the roof edge of a towering Manhattan warehouse, climbed out onto a sheet iron monolith advertising “Chesterfield King Cigarettes” (itself 11 stories high). Over the next two weeks Dean torched that sign into dozens of sections he lowered on a hand-rope to the ground. Unassisted, naturally. He had a three picture career as an actor in porn; his best/worst adventure involving an ice-packed “tundra seduction” which froze his scrotum so thoroughly he proved unfit to perform. Until, that is, the patient warmth of his co-star’s massage returned Dean to full functionality. (Schambach’s ridiculous testosterone levels were, he once explained, due to the six nipples bestowed upon him at birth.) He’d been selling neckties in Saks Fifth Avenue when cockroaches emerged from his sample cases, scampering onto walls and causing shrieks among shoppers as Dean crawled away transformed into cockroach, himself. He’d found Norman Mailer in the next cell of a small jail, the two finally forced by judge to shake hands, after Dean had punched out the blowhard at The Foc’sle Bar in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Most withering of all, Dean had survived being loved and left by Sandra Shaw. (Who died one week before Dean — may they travel the Bardo together!) Dean and Sandee had shared a cabin without electricity or running water; Dean assisting in the raising of Shaw’ two daughters by hunting deer for food and felling trees to burn in a woodstove for warmth. But Sandee eventually cracked Dean over the knee with a tire-iron to silence yet another rant, and to convince him they were through.

Then finally, circa 1986, came that fatefully slow courtship resulting in Dean’s marriage to Michele Andrea LeBlanc; who often said that “even approaching 50 — Dean had the body of Baryshnikov.”  Michele was awed by  Dean’s numerous talents and, yes, his inspired physicality. (Dean studied ballet too, once somewhere unrecalled.) “He used his acting to show her his good side for a few years before she realized that dark side.” So writes their daughter, the extraordinary Deana LeBlanc, born some thirty years ago, after her soon-to-be father had cleared the land and built the cabin for his family of three. It being the very structure Dean Schambach prayed he might and did indeed die in last week — lying in his bed, asleep on his belly — a wilde childe on its wildest adventure…to the end.

Schambach was found on October 26 by his dear Julie Beesmer, manager of Bread Alone, where Dean spent most early mornings of adult life. He is survived by his daughter Deana Leblanc (whose mother Michele pre-deceased Dean last year) and by his sister Sandy Schambach. A memorial for Dean will be held on Sunday, November 12 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Bearsville Theater. Here we hope to view Dean’s solo performance in wonderful videos made by both Gillian Farrell and David McDonald. (Google these names for a preview.) Lastly, I apologize for not mentioning more of Dean’s friends in the above. For excuse I cite the fact that a mere three days after one his many “brothers” released word of Dean’s death on FaceBook over 180 responses had poured in.

And yes, Dean — that amounts to a standing ovation.

There are 2 comments

  1. Suzette Green

    Thank you, Tad, for a poetic, sensitive, insightful, humorous, and brave eulogy to a dear friend, who is beloved by many Woodstocker residents, old timers and new.
    My friendship with Dean goes back to 1968, with lots of good cheer and as a grateful recipient of a book press that he crafted for me. Dean was always a gentleman as far as I was concerned, and told my mother on a chance meeting while she visited me in Woodstock in 1969, that I was “…as American as apple pie!”, as only Dean could express such a banal expression, with a brilliant grin. My mother was instantly in love, pronouncing, “Why don’t you marry him?”. We know the answer to that, and besides, I do not mate well in captivity.
    I was thrilled and grateful to have a visit with him last September, to express my appreciation and caring for him, that his being is strong in my heart. Thank you, Julie, and Bread Alone.
    Deana, love will always surround you. We are left with the profound essence of an enigmatic, loving soul.
    May I sign up for my obit. now, Tad???!!

  2. Linda Sperling

    Thank you for this beautiful eulogy. Dean was an extraordinary man; one of the most generous souls I’ve ever known. Wish I could be there to celebrate his life today with his friends. Your tribute brought back memories of watching him sail over ski slopes with amazing grace, fight with an ancient tortoise with perfect aplomb, and exclaim poetry in his sonorous voice. He is and will always be much missed by everyone whom he called friend.

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